What if Bashar Assad wins
Mustafa Khalifa – Syrian writer
Posted on 17th February
Many observers, political analysts, and even some politicians, have almost reached a consensus that the Assad regime in Syria is about to collapse. They agree that the issue right now is just a matter of how long it will take, alongside the high cost associated with this extension of time, both on humanitarian and other levels.
However, despite the high expectations that the Assad regime will collapse, one may question: what if the “miracle” aspired by the Syrian regime takes place, and the security/military solution grants the regime and its allies the results they desired? In other words, what if the Syrian regime wins over its own people once again? Furthermore, what would be the implications of such a victory on the domestic level within Syria, as well as on regional and international levels?
Before discussing the results of this hypothetical “victory” of the Assad regime, it is useful to address some of the basic characteristics of the regime that could affect these results.
The most important of characteristics of the Assad regime that need to be addressed are the following: the extreme brutality and ruthlessness in killing people, which is described by the opposition as “the criminal nature of the regime”. This cruelty is carried out with a punitive and vindictive hateful tendency. The second very prominent characteristic is the regime’s arrogance and haughty superiority over others, resulting in the reluctance of the regime to make any concessions under pressure; no matter how trivial or even useful it may be to it. If forced to make any concession, the regime will look down with severe hatred at the party that forced it to give up this waiver and will hunt opportunities to retreat from it and, later, spitefully oppress who it believes has “twisted its arm”.
The “victory” of the regime will not be achieved unless the level of repression rises to a point where the opposition cannot bear it, be it genocide or anything of that sort. If this genocide is coupled with the silence of international community, its complacency of just condemning and denouncing Al-Assad, and its placing some sanctions that are insignificant to the regime, the regime would thus interpret these reactions of the international community as a green light to do what it wills inside Syria without any consequences, and, of course, the regime’s interpretation would be absolutely right.
It is for this reason and many others that once the regime is confident that it has crushed the revolution and knows that people have returned back into their homes, exiles, and prisons, it will shift from its phase of defense to its phase of attack. The regime will attempt to reshape the Syrian society to one that would guarantee the permanence of the regime “forever”.
Hence, the argument stating that the regime will seem weak, even if it wins over the Syrian people, is incorrect due to the fact that this struggle is not dealing primarily with any external forces, nor are the regime’s intentions to confront any regional or international party. The regime’s confrontation is with the Syrian people; therefore, if it emerges victorious, one will not be able to consider it weak.
In order to be just in the analysis of the Syrian situation, the issue of sectarianism must be addressed. Whether now, or in the future after the regime’s “victory”, the impact of sectarianism should not be overlooked. Sectarianism is an issue that is strongly present, even if all the opposers of sectarianism were to cry out, inside Syria and abroad, that they are against it. Instinctive sectarian mobilization is a cornerstone in the regime’s strategy. Any analyst, Western or Arab, religious or atheist, who tries to ignore the role of sectarianism and the way the regime employs it would be drifting significantly away from the Syrian reality. It is certain, in the reality of the Syrian situation, that the regime has greatly succeeded in maintaining the sectarianism, which has allowed it to control the main streets of the Syrian people, much of the Syrian military, and political and cultural elites. The Syrian military and political and cultural elites – the Alawites in particular, and the rest of the minorities to a considerable measure – are so wrapped around the regime that they are even willing to defend it.
As for the expected results of the regime’s victory within Syria, it is plausible that, after the regime makes sure the storm has subsided, it will immediately begin transferring from the phase of defending its existence to a stage of ferocious attack in pursuit of strengthening and maintaining its existence, and it would have well identified its weak and strong points in advance.
Of the most important weaknesses of the regime is the sectarian composition of the Syrian society, most notably the affiliation of the ruling family to the Alawite sect, which hardly constitutes one-tenth of the population. The fact that the regime is entirely comprised of one minority sect inevitably raises the question of their legitimacy as a whole. This questionable legitimacy of the regime has always been present and has ever gnawed at Hafez al-Assad, especially during his struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood in the early eighties. Hafez al-Assad was consequently forced to declare his belief in Islam in a televised speech, pronouncing the testimony of faith, known as “Al Shahadah”, according to the religious rituals that are required for qualifying anyone to be considered a Muslim.
The second weakness is the regime’s loose grip on the economic resolution or, rather, its lack of control over the Syrian economy in the same totalitarian way it controls politics, military affairs, and security. Despite the Assad regime’s dominance over the country’s economy, as they were the first capitalists in Syria; and despite the emergence of some Alawite characters who, by benefiting from the proceeds of the regime’s corruption and bribery, have been elevated to bourgeoisie; the private capital in Syria remains due to the Sunni Muslims and the Christians. And here it is apparent that the proportion of Christian bourgeoisie does not correspond with the size of the Christian sect in the community, as the Christians used to make up about 10% of the population and now they presently make up around 5%, after nearly half of them migrated out of Syria during the era of Assad-father, partly due to political reasons but mostly for economic motives. The proportion of Christian bourgeoisie ranges between 15-20% of the total Syrian bourgeoisie.
In conclusion this second weak point of the regime forces it to make concessions to merchants and industrialists – despite its severe dislike to making concessions – in order to guarantee that those businessmen will remain either on their side, or neutral, if any internal conflicts were to occur.
Yet the strengths of the regime are many. Among the most important of strengths is the machine of tyranny and oppression with its three wings: the elite forces in the Syrian army led by Maher al-Assad and comprised mainly of a single sectarian class: “Alawites”; the security systems; and, finally, the so-called “Shabbiha”. It is worth noting here that those three wings have become very similar on the organizational level as well as the professional and ethical level. The “Shabbiha” began as a bunch of scattered groups, where each group would follow some leader who works with anything outside the law. Now, the “Shabbiha” have developed into a single organized unit, similar to a military militia. The other two wings – the military forces and security services – have experienced a decline in their ethics to the level to carry out killings, lootings, and thefts, and their organizational structure has deteriorated and turned more into militias.
One of the regime’s strengths also includes the strong support by Iran and its followers, Iraq and Lebanon; the international disability and complicity; and, most important of all, the Arab impotence, especially the Gulf States, which would be most affected by the quartet alliance led by Iran and with membership of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which is also known as “the Shiite Crescent”, which Jordan’s King Abdullah II has warned of earlier.
Now what are the practical results, on Syria’s domestic level, after the victory of the Syrian regime and its transfer from the state of defense to the state of attack? And what goals would it seek out of such an attack?
Certainly, the regime will begin its attack with more than three-hundred-thousand fighters, armed with the latest weapons from Russia and Iran, and will strive to achieve a set of intertwined goals, or goals that would overlap one another, and the most important of those goals would be: First, to rebuild the wall of fear and terror into the hearts of the Syrian people; second, to take revenge from demonstrators, protesters, and all the parties that have damaged the regime or “insulted” it; third, to take control of the economic decision at the private sector’s level; and, fourth, to change the doctrinal composition of the Syrian society.
Mustafa Tlass, Defense Minister during the reign of Hafez al-Assad, once wrote a book about the conflict that broke out in Syria between1983 and 1984 where Rifaat al-Assad — Hafez al-Assad’s brother and commander of the Defense Brigades named “Sarayahl Difaa” at that time, which later became the Fourth Division, currently led by Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother — was one of its heroes. In his book titled “Three Months that Shook Syria”, Tlass included an excerpt that read: “Rifaat’s plan was as follows: indiscriminate bombing of Damascus in order to terrorize the people and cut off their breath. This section of the plan shall be executed by the artillery battalions – MB 21 – which can fire 720 shells every one minute and twenty seconds. The objective of such bombing is to drive the people of the capital of Damascus to sense that it was a grip of steel that took over power, and after bombing the city, detachments of infantry from the Defense Brigades would go around plundering the disaster-stricken city, as the Brigadier-General Rifaat al-Assad had told his officers and soldiers that the city would be lawful for them for three days and three nights, with the condition that none of them would remain poor after that, and should any soldier ask for help or tip later on, he is going to have his hand cut off.”
At that time, Rifaat could not implement this scenario, but if Bashar and Maher prevail after such strong protests, which could have almost pulled out the Assad family, then this is the expected scenario. Syria in full would be violated, except for some areas in the Alawite mountains, and it will mark a new era in Syria that would be called: “The Era of the Shabbiha”. And, yes, it will be heavier toll on the people from previous eras, such as the era of National Guard in the sixties; the era of the Defense Brigades, which lasted until 1984; and the infringements that took place previously in Aleppo, Hama, and some parts of Syria in the early eighties. By way of infringements, the regime will try to achieve several objectives: mainly to terrorize, intimidate, and humiliate the people by raids on homes, arrests, looting, and theft – where looting and theft would be a strong incentive offered by the regime to the Shabbiha, who are basically thieves and smugglers themselves. It is well known that a significant part of the wealth of Syria lies in the form of gold jewelry in the hands and necks of Syrian women, and it can be confirmed that this gold will end mostly in the possession of the Shabbiha and their leaders. Looting will be mostly concentrated in rich urban centers, such as Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Deir Al-Zour. These raids would be accompanied by methodical actions of raping women and girls, especially among the “Sunnis”, in attempt to humiliate and drive them to a state of frustration and despair. It should be noted that these practices are already happening now, but the difference is that, at this point, it is not generalized nor it is systematic; rather, it is taking place in the shadow of the battle. In the future, however, this would take place while the regime and its assistants rest assured without fear and expecting no consequences for their actions.
Those raids will take place from one house to another, just like in the city of Aleppo in 1980, where the city was divided into two parts – its population was more than 2 million – and was searched one house after another, looking for members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The campaign was also accompanied by robbery, theft and rape; although not generalized nor systematic, and was also obscured, like all the events of the eighties.
The entire seizure of Syria will come about under the façade of “searching for wanted members of armed gangs and terrorists”, as the Syrian president has already announced at the beginning of the events that there are more than 64,000 people wanted. After some time, he returned to say that the number has doubled several times, and since the Syrian revolution is a filmed one — by either the activists themselves or by the security services and their agents — and the images are under technical analysis by expert security agencies, it is expected to have the number of people wanted to rise up to between 1 to 1.5 million people. The fate of these people, Bashar Al-Assad said, will be one out of three possibilities: murder, imprisonment, or exile.
Exile would mean that the wanted can escape out of Syria along with their family. Some activists who witnessed the events in the eighties and are watching what is going on now estimate that the number of deaths during the first two years after the “victory” will climb up to 200 or 250 thousand killed by firing squads or under torture, and that the number of detainees in concentration camps – like the infamous prison of Tadmor – will possibly escalate to double that number, while the number of refugees outside Syria will be close to one million, taking into account the fact that most refugees will escort their families along with them out of fear of being assaulted by the regime. Most of the refugee movements will head towards Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan as temporary stations until they can later move to the Gulf and its six countries; yet, whoever proves capable will make their destination to a European state.
So, within two years from “victory”, the regime would have achieved two main objectives: first, it would have tamed the people and built the wall of fear and terror, and it would also have took revenge on its opponents and abused them, paying special attention to the parties that made it compromise and will revenge on them more, in proportion to the regime’s averse nature against such concessions and its perception of the concessions as arm-twisting and humiliating. These parties include:
1 – Kurds:
After nearly fifty years of exclusion, marginalization, oppression, and contempt exerted by the regime against the Kurdish people of Syria, the regime suddenly converted, after the current events erupted, to trying to win them over in pursuit of separating them and keeping them away from participating in recent protests against the regime. This policy of “courting” manifested itself clearly when the president issued a decree allowing tens of thousands of Kurds deprived of Syrian citizenship to finally acquire it, as well as the regime’s keenness on not having any casualties among the Kurdish protesters, in an attempt to avoid angry reactions. Consequently, Kurdish demonstrations were faced with some sort of leniency by the regime, all with the aim to neutralize them and keep them away from the protest-movement, as the participation of the Kurds would be effective, considering that Kurdish ground is actually politically vibrant. Another reason of the regime’s leniency towards the Kurds is because the regime’s back leans to the Kurdish region of Iraq, which implies that if they have good relations with the Kurds, they would have secured a comfortable strategic depth at every level.
After “victory” is attained, this technique of “courting” the Kurds will flip 180 degrees towards the contrary, as the regime will try to torment the Kurds and their political power more than anyone else. Not only because the Kurds forced the regime to make compromises, and not only because some of their leaders had publicly turned down the president’s invitations to meet them, which is in itself considered a fatal insult: those leaders will probably not make it! But the most important reason would be due to the intended quartet alliance to come between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, where Iran will impose its vision into many issues, particularly the Kurdish issue. The Iranian vision does not recognize the existence of the Kurdish people, and based on that it goes without saying that the Iraqi-Kurds themselves will be negatively affected by the dominance of the Iranian vision towards the issue of the Kurdish people.
2 – Arab tribal leaders:
The regime was forced to bribe some Arab tribal leaders with large amounts of money in return to pledging their influence on their clans and preventing them from participating in the people’s movement against the regime. The regime also provided support and power of authority to these leaders, thus restoring some of the luster the regime has previously worked hard to smudge and erase, only because it does not want leadership of any of the society’s components other than their own. Therefore, the regime will turn on those, as well, and will probably demand the return of the money it believes it has been blackmailed into giving. The regime might as well work on insulting and humiliating the Arab tribal leaders, as it did in the past, when a clan senior who did not happen to pay enough allegiance to the regime had been arrested, had his mustache semi-shaved (the mustache in this culture symbolizes honor and pride), and had then displayed before his men and women with half-a-mustache.
3 – “Shabbiha” in Aleppo:
In the city of Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, a few thousands of the Shabbiha reside. Some reports estimate their number to be close to 25 thousand people. The Shabbiha are the ones holding the joints of the city of Aleppo, attacking any attempt for demonstration. The Shabbiha of Aleppo are different from the Shabbiha of other Syrian regions in that they all belong to the Sunni sect and they all work for drugs- and arms-smuggling-gangs and prostitution. The Shabbiha of Aleppo are definitely going to be crushed by the regime after its victory, as the regime would not need them any longer, and the Shabbiha have grown into too large of an organized power to keep. The regime also knows too well that the Shabbiha’s loyalty goes to the highest bidder.
4 – The Syrian Bourgeoisie:
In both its Sunni and Christian sectors, the Syrian bourgeoisie will receive fatal blows by the regime, not only because it was forced to pay some painful concessions, but also for the regime to achieve its third objective: to seek total control over economic decisions, which is carried out, according to the regime’s mentality, through “Alwitizing” the private capital. Therefore, the regime will plan to take over all the economic establishments, both commercial and industrial, through the mobilization of a large group of al-Assad relatives, thousands of Alawites, retired officers, and some symbols of the Alawite sect. Those are the groups of people that have, in past decades, accumulated huge amounts of money through corruption, smuggling, and abuse of power. The regime is going to direct the aforementioned group in order to implement the goal of possessing control over economic enterprises, whether legally or illegally. This would mean that the traders and industrialists in major Syrian cities will become under unaffordable pressure: murder, arrest, heavy taxation, disabling interests through administrative procedures, and so forth. The Syrian bourgeoisie will then be forced to either sell their facilities to the regime’s thugs, face bankruptcy, get arrested, killed, or, in the best-case scenario, immigrate from Syria, which in turn would serve the fourth goal sought by the regime in changing the doctrinal composition of the Syrian society.
The first phase depends on gradual reduction of the religious majority in the society, or reducing the number and proportion of the Sunni community. We saw that the first three objectives mentioned earlier lead to this reduction, as their infringement, murder, arrest, and deportation will all lead to the decrease of the Sunni population in Syria as well as their weakening and impoverishment; hence, Sunni immigration will skyrocket. The second phase of the fourth goal would be to spread Shi’ism amidst Sunni circles. This process, which started in Syria more than a century ago, remains active in many areas, although not frequent enough to threaten Syria’s doctrinal composition. However, this time the regime will attempt to eliminate all the previously existing obstacles hindering this goal. Furthermore, the regime will open the door wide for the “Shi’itization” campaign in a way to ensure that the change it seeks will happen within a certain timeline that may not exceed a decade.
The aforementioned phases and goals outline the potential and expected results inside of Syria following the victory of the Syrian regime and the suppression of the revolution raging against it for more than ten months now. As for the expected results at the international level, especially Syria’s neighboring Arab countries; it is possible to talk about a new geo-political reality in the region through the birth of the quartet alliance led by Iran with the membership of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon: The Shiite Crescent. In order for the relationship between these countries to convert from the level of coordination and secret agreements into an alliance with complete political and military dimensions. This alliance will form a real center of mass on the international level with its geographical dimension extending from the borders of Afghanistan in Central Asia to the Mediterranean coast in the west. This includes a demographic dimension with a range of 130 to 150 million people, an oil dimension of around 6 million barrels a day, and a militarily dimension of more than one million soldiers in the state of peace.
Such an alliance of nuclear strength will turn the tables of the delicate political equations present now in the Middle East, and it will always be a source of tension with neighboring countries and the world, as well as a source of fires here and there (and this is what the Iranian and Syrian regimes excel at). Later on, the world will try to pay the price of putting off those fires.
Geographically speaking, if this alliance resembles a Crescent, then the star within it will signify the Arabian Peninsula with its six countries, in addition to Yemen, Jordan, and Palestine. That is why the alliance will throw its weight over this star, especially the Gulf region that exports more than 20 million barrels of oil per day. What is strange is how the world, which did not allow Saddam Hussein to rest on top of the Gulf’s oil by occupying Kuwait, deals too tenderly with the Iranian attempts to establish the quartet alliance then rest over the same place Saddam has ever yearned for.
As for the direct effects on the “star” countries, there will be increasingly more acute conflicts in Yemen in pursuit of Iranian control over it, directly by “Al Huthiyeen” and indirectly by al-Qaeda organization and other “Jihadist” groups. The massive Iranian and Syrian influence inside these organizations is no secret.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries will be vulnerable to violent disturbances by Iranian intelligence and doctrinal arms inside these countries and it is not unlikely that one or two GCC countries might break up, which may lead to the fall of the thrones of some ruling families over there.
Jordan will look as if caught by the neck: if it walks in the direction that the leadership of the alliance wants, the grip loosens a bit; otherwise, it will be strangled without mercy. What raises the stakes on Jordan, as an entity, are two issues: the first is that this Crescent alliance has important pillars inside Jordan itself. Those pillars are either Islamic, connected to Iran and Hamas, or national left-wing, connected to the regime in Damascus. The second issue is the large intersection between what the alliance wants from and for Jordan as a fate, on the one hand, and some Israeli projects aiming to rid Jordan of its political power and state institutions, on the other, which would push Jordan into chaos towards the solution of an “alternative homeland”.
In Palestine, it is very likely, according to current data, that Hamas will dominate the scene after swallowing up the organization of Islamic Jihad, the most dramatic of which would be the disintegration and decomposition of Fateh to become a marginal faction like other Palestinian Liberation Organization factions. Consequently, the Palestinian national decision will be ruled with an iron fist and the Palestinian cause will turn into a bargain chip between Iran and Israel.
As for Lebanon, when we say it is part of the quartet alliance, it is because of the fact that Lebanon is controlled by Hezbollah, and although the party does not stretch over the entire Lebanese soil, it can however, and within minimal time, secure such control without no considerable resistance, and it may not need military extension as it would be sufficient to establish a trilateral security room -Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah- in the southern suburb or in Anjar to be in charge of spreading fear, prosecution and arrest of Lebanese political figures who oppose the Iranian/ Syrian policy until gradual control over the entire Lebanese arena is brought in. One of its immediate results will be inflicting a strike to the Lebanese formula of coexistence and sharing power (cancellation of the Taif Agreement, abolition of parity, etc…). And then it is natural to have some political family phenomena come to end (Harirism, Junblatism, Jmayyelism) and lots of big heads might roll down (Walid and Timor Junblatt, Geagea, Hariri, Fetfot, Alloush, Al Jarrah…) if they don’t rush themselves and flee the danger to come.
On the sectarian level: Sunnis in Lebanon will share the same fate as their Syrian counterparts, such as physical and economic harassment and displacement, preaching Shi’ism. The Christians could be most at stake here because Hezbollah will no longer need a “Christian cover” and will play with open cards. It is also known that Hezbollah primarily aims to establish a Shiite Islamic Republic, or anything of the sort in case the former is banned by international circumstances or Israel. The party is not going to directly attack Christians due to the sensitivity of the matter for Europe in general and France in particular, but will push them to indirectly migrate by means of buying their land, economic harassment, imposing restrictions on personal freedoms, and the like. There will definitely be several other effects to places such as Turkey and Israel, for example. It could be that of the most important results of the victory of the Syrian regime, and the completion of a quartet alliance, is the launch of a bargain between the two projects: the Iranian and the Israeli, with the aim of sharing dominance in the region, especially if the ruling of the provocative extremists on both sides come to an end and moderate or pragmatic governments come to power.